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Torah Commentary
Pesach (April 19, 2014)


Lori Corrsin

Shir HaShirim: the Song of Songs, the Sublime Song, the First of All Songs, The Song, is a sacred scroll, a Megillah, part of the Jewish canon. Its eight chapters of love poetry, thought to be from around the fourth century B.C.E., are set in an idealized, abundant landscape — a kind of Eden. The poetry is full of passionate, rich images. Certain words leap out from our texts: flowers and singing birds, sweet fragrances, fine oil, roses and lilies, fierce love, bitter jealousy, eyes like doves, gardens and beds of spices, and kisses like an intoxicating wine.

How is it possible that this book of sensual love poetry is included in our sacred texts? Some Rabbis believed that The Song is an allegory — the love poems are the poetry of God’s love for Israel, and Israel’s loving response. This love is the heart of prayer. That’s why some congregations chant the whole Song of Songs every Friday evening.

But one of the greatest of the Rabbinic sages, Rabbi Akiva, believed that love is the most sublime manifestation of the human experience and that the ideal of human love is the greatest expression of God’s bond with us. The love between human partners is true love, not a parable for something loftier or different. Akiva wrote that physical and emotional love between people is the source of wisdom; it serves as the cornerstone of moral life. He stated: “Had the Torah not been given, the Song of Songs would have been worthy to guide the world.” Rabbi Akiva is credited chiefly with bringing Shir HaShirim into the Holy Scriptures.

The Song is also called the Song of Solomon because of its attribution at the beginning: Shir HaShirim Asher LiSh’lomo (the Song of Songs Ascribed to Solomon), the Torah tells us that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines…

Shir HaShirim traditionally is chanted in synagogues on the Sabbath of Passover, Chol HaMo-eid Pesach, this Shabbat. God’s love for us is illustrated by the Passover story, the story of our Freedom, the Redemption from Egypt, the story we retell every Pesach. One of the Hebrew names for Passover, Chag HaAviv (the Spring Holiday), also illustrates why we read this beautiful poetry celebrating spring, love and renewal during Passover. Listen to the 20th century Canadian composer Healey Willan’s “Rise Up, My Love, My Fair One,” sung by the Emanu-El Choir. A lush, beautiful setting from the Song of Songs Chapter 2:10-12, it paints an expressive picture of love in the springtime. Listen now >>

Eighteenth century American composer William Billings wrote “I Am the Rose of Sharon” (Song of Songs 2:1-5, 7-8, 10-11), a joyous, light celebration of love and nature. Sung by Emanu-El’s Choir, it is a completely different interpretation of this wonderful love poetry! Billings is considered the first American choral composer. Listen now >>

As Rabbi Akiva stated, there is nothing more sacred than this: “For the entire world was never so worthy as on the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, since all of Scripture is holy, and the Song of Songs is Holy of Holies!”

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